To those who have visited,Costa Rica embodies the idea of a simple lifestyle and easy living, or as the locals say, Pura Vida. But for me, the true spirit of Costa Rica was not found at its sandy beaches, but up high in its mountains and cloud forests. Away from the crowds, removed from the noises, I found a sense of Pura Vida in a place called Monteverde, from a most unexpected group.
To many Costa Ricans, Monteverde is a bit of an enigma, maybe even a little confusing. Aside from the locals who’ve been there since the time immemorial, in this remote region in Central America, abundant in resources with 6% of the world’s biodiversity, quietly resides a vibrant Quaker community.
In the 1950’s, a small population of Quakers from Fairbanks, Alabama, in order to escape the violent social environment brought on by the Korean War, immigrated to Costa Rica. They brought with them the age-old practice of dairy farming as a means of income as well as a vision of a society founded on the principles of Peace, Equality, Simplicity, and Truth. Now, sixty years later, the community has not only planted its roots deeply in this area, but has helped transformed Monteverde into an internationally renowned destination for ecological tourism and research.
We were fortunate enough to have been introduced to this community and was invited to attend a Sunday meeting. Not being familiar with the Quaker ways, many of the activities we observed were fascinating. This society of “friends”, as they call their members, holds a social structure so lacking in hierarchy it looks almost anarchistic. A consensus is reached, but not by explicit voting. Instead, it’s an implicit agreement of group feeling the Quakers call “sense of the meeting”. There is no person or group with executive power, only administrative abilities to make sure the decisions are carried out.
The emphasis on equality permeates throughout every aspect of the community. Instead of a governing body, there are committees; instead of elected leaders, there are clerks and overseers, whose main job is to end assemblies when they run for too long. There are no debates that determine courses of action for the community, instead there are “meetings”, where no one is obligated to speak, and in between speakers it is common to have a minute or two of silence for people to reflect. The clerks and overseers are not chosen based on an electoral process, but instead by appointments of three years cycles, usually to people actively involvements in the community.
In a world where it’s routine to see leaders pander to their constituents, where complex problems are reduced to catch phrases devoid of all nuisances, where people are often either too apathetic or too cynical about government to want to participate, a society of “friends” whose idea of a policy debate is a two hour meeting where one hour is spent sitting in silence seems almost comically out of place. Yet, decisions are made in a timely manner, each person’s opinions are equally respected, and no one feels the pressure to conform to ideas shouted by loud and obtrusive individuals. Amongst Monteverde’s strikingly beautiful landscape and surprisingly cool weather, the Quakers have lived a quiet, peaceful lifestyle since their first establishment. Their traditions and values may have evolved over the years, but the core remains intact.
The Costa Rican phrase of Pura Vida carries with it a longing for simplicity. As one puts it, “Eat well, sleep well, shit well, that’s it.” Yet, as tourism boomed, so too did these words change from a cultural adage describing a way of living to a catch phrase used to entice and entertain. Today, the Pura Vida lifestyle is hardly seen in San Jose or Tamarindo. There, I see the same hustle and bustle as any other big cities and popular tourist destinations. It’s hard to argue with economic development, but it’s even harder to get what Pura Vida really means standing next to a sign for Black Friday. The cloud forest of Monteverde was an escape, and the people there made it a more than memorable one.